Be careful changing a scene’s reality.
In improv we’re building something out of nothing. So if improvisers make a choice on stage they’re moving forward and to negate that choice threatens to stall that forward motion as they scramble to justify the contradiction. Not only do contradictory choices disrupt the scene for the improvisers, it erodes the audience’s willingness to engage in the scene – if the players aren’t seeing eye to eye, what hope does the audience have to understand what’s going on?
Admittedly, a contradictory choice can get a laugh – but if in the aftermath of that choice the scene is compromised you have to ask yourself whether that laugh was worth it?
Now, if you’re on stage and a scene’s reality is changed on you, here’s what you do: Don’t justify or explain away the contradiction; Embrace it. Commit to heightening both sides of the contradiction, allowing them to coexist. If we confidently accept both realities the audience can relax and buy in as well.
Check out this example –
As the central characters, Max and Zach handle this game exactly right. They get off to a great start: With a physically engaged Self Contained Emotional Statement from Max and immediate, enthusiastic agreement/mirroring from Zach.
And then when Shannon changes their reality, they don’t miss a beat. They stick to the reality they’d established – heightening the details and their emotional investment – trusting the group to set and cement the pattern that’ll allow the contradictory realities to coexist.
And that’s just what happens.
From the wings, Patrick makes Shannon’s choice look good with another “We See” and Kevin heightens the endowment by embodying it. Max and Zach keep loving the ocean. Another “We See” endowment and embodiment. And Max and Zach keep loving the ocean – they’re playing with the juxtaposition without feeling the need to call it out directly. When the dead man floats by and Zach follows up by loving the smell of the sea air, the audience gets it (and loves it) – they’re engaged, they don’t need to be spoon fed.
Now, a little pattern note: The “We See”s progress from “man in tube” to “dead man” to…”band aids.” If the third move here would have cemented a tighter progression then the scene might’ve hit a great edit point. But “band aids” doesn’t capitalize on the established trajectory – it has lower stakes, and is harder to embody.
For this supportive ensemble, however, that ain’t nothing but a little speed bump. Zach embraces the band aids to juxtapose against the cleanliness of the ocean. Cleanliness is of course close to Godliness…which sets up Shannon’s return with “We See a van pulled up from the morgue,”…which sets up Zach’s “It’s like we’re right on h aven’s doorstep.” Goddamn beautiful is what it is.
See how heightening juxtaposition of contradictory elements can serve to tie everything together?
Be careful about changing a scene’s reality. But if there are contradictory choices made on stage, this is how you play with them successfully.